Temptation Research

The difficulty of resisting temptation in a variety of  contexts (kw: willpower perhaps)?  I’ve seen stuff on food temptation and I think some on exercise.

Resisting temptation is harder when our self-control is depleted, and resisting temptation depletes our self-control, leading to greater chances of unethical behavior

  • Gino, F., Schweitzer, M. E., Mead, N. L., & Ariely, D. (2011). “Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behavior.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115: 191-203.

Self-control becomes depleted by common, everyday experiences, including

  • Fatigue: Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 495–525.
  • Engaging in cognitively demanding tasks: Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33– 46.
  • Prior decision making: Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 883– 898.
  • Rumination: Denson, T. F., Pedersen, W. C., Friese, M., Hahm, A., & Roberts, L. (2011). Understanding impulsive aggression: Angry rumination and reduced self-control capacity are mechanisms underlying the provocation-aggression relationship. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 850 – 862
  • Stress: Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2005). Academic examination stress impairs self-control. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 254 –279.
  • Things outside of one’s control, including loud noise, crowds, bad odors, etc (For a review:  Muraven, Mark; Baumeister, Roy F. Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, Vol 126(2), Mar 2000, 247-259.
  • Suppressing thoughts or emotions: Baumeister, Bratlavsky, Muraven, Tice. 1998. Ego-Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? JPSP

-Effective self control, including resisting temptation, is three fold– in a sort of feed-back loop– and the failure of any of these three parts can lead to self control being undermined.
-The three parts are Standards (ideals, goals, states of mind), Monitoring (comparing current state of self to Standard), and Operate, or The Capacity to Change (can you override the internal processes).
-These mechanisms are depleting, although are renewable resources.
-Success at these mechanisms facilitates delay of gratification (you’re picturing your future Standard), resist acting on impulses, 

  • Roy F. Baumeister; Yielding to Temptation: Self-Control Failure, Impulsive Purchasing, and Consumer Behavior. J Consum Res 2002; 28 (4): 670-676.
    • In his review of impulsive consumer behavior, shoppers report experiencing a loss of control, an inability to resist
      • Rook, Dennis W. (1987), “The Buying Impulse,” Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (September), 189–199.
      • Thompson, Craig J., William B. Locander, and Howard R. Pollio (1990), “The Lived Meaning of Free Choice: An Existential-Phenomenological Description of Everyday Consumer Experiences of Contemporary Married Women,” Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (December), 346–361.
      • Alcohol has been shown to contribute to failure of self-control in nearly every domain in which people control their behavior (see Baumeister et al. [1994] for review). One explanation is that alcohol intoxication makes people stop monitoring their behavior. Hull (1981) showed that alcohol reduces people’s attention to themselves, and self-focused attention is a vital part of monitoring oneself for the sake of self-regulation (see Carver and Scheier 1981, 1982). Drunken people stop keeping track of their spending, the wisdom of their comments, their eating, their smoking, and even of their drinking itself—and so the inner controls that typically restrain these behaviors are undermined.

People tempted by chocolate ate much more chocolate than a non-temptation control-group in a subsequent taste test

  • Stirling, L. J., & Yeomans, M. R. (2004). Effect of exposure to a forbidden food on eating in restrained and unrestrained women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35, 59–68.

The most commonly cited reason for eating unhealthy snacks was that the snacks were “highly tempting”

  • Cleobury, L., & Tapper, K. (2013). Reasons for eating ‘unhealthy’ snacks in overweight and obese males and females. Journal of Human Nutrition & Dietetics, 25, 333–341.

CDC Study found that in 2010, over 50% of smokers in the US made an attempt to quit within the previous year, but only 6% were successful

^ that one is more on habits…
I also feel like most of this stuff is about the conditions under which temptation resistance is bad, as though we’re decent at it by default… when we want sort of the opposite framing

Most dieters fail to control their weight: “That dieters often fail to control their weight is nearly a truism. Although more and more people are chronically dieting (Andreyeva, Long, Henderson, & Grode, 2010), obesity rates have more than doubled in the United States between 1980 and 2004 (C. L. Ogden et al., 2006). Even though dieters are often able to achieve substantial weight loss while actively dieting, most regain the lost weight in the years to follow (Mann et al., 2007; Powell, Calvin, & Calvin, 2007; Wing, 2004).”

  • Stroebe, W., van Koningsbruggen, G. M., Papies, E. K., & Aarts, H. (2013). Why most dieters fail but some succeed: A goal conflict model of eating behavior. Psychological Review, 120(1), 110-138.

“Without self-control, people would give in to temptation, quit when frustrated, disobey difficult instructions, or otherwise follow their automatic patterns of behaviors (Bargh & Chartrand. 1999. The Unbearable Automaticity of Being. American Psychologist.)”

  • Muraven & Slessareva, 2003. Mechanisms of Self-Control Failure: Motivation and Limited Resources. PSPB. 

– Ability to self-control requires controlling thoughts, emotions, and moods, cognitive energy and resources, managing impulses, decision making processes, and attention. In short– it’s no easy feat.
– Resisting temptation is an “ongoing and unpleasant exertion,” and the decision to “give in” is thus marked by positive rewards, both externally and mentally– feelings of relief, pleasure

  • Baumeister & Heatherton. 1996. Self-Regulation Failure: An Overview. Psychological Inquiry. 7(1): 1-15

-Similarly, temptation is conceived of as “a tug-of-war or conflict between impulses and self-control” … “following our impulses seems to be the simplest and most natural thing in the world”
– More candy consumed by self-regulation depletion condition than control condition, even after assessing & controlling for their dietary restraint standards
– Cognitive load predicted inability to restrain amount of chocolate eaten compared to control group
– Negative affect and managing terror, which are mentally exhausting, decreased restrain on chocolate consumption

  • Hofmann, Friese, & Strack 2009. Impulse and Self Control From a Dual-Systems Perspective. Perspectives on Psych Science

– About 40% of deaths in Western societies are caused by long-term consequences of failure to self-regulate, resist temptations such as tobacco, sex, alcohol, other drugs, and unhealthy food (Schroeder, 2007. We can do better: Improving the health of the American people. New England J of Med)
Experience sampling shows that over 1 week, people indicated above average desire strength for sex, social contact, among many others (food, drink, sleep, leisure). Resistance rates were below average for social contact, alcohol, media usage, and work. I.e. self-control failure is both well documented in lab studies, and now in everyday life
– Extrapolating from their findings, the authors conclude average adult spends 8 hrs a day feeling desires (half the time of waking life), 3 hours resisting, and .5 hours succumbing

  • Hofmann, Vohs, Baumeister. 2012. What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About, and Try to Resist in Everyday Life. Psych Science

^Same data as above: “Personality traits were prominent and significant predictors of desire strength and conflict, but personality’s effects on enactment were relatively rare and weak. In contrast, situational factors such as the mere presence of others and the presence of enactment models had no discernible main effects on desire strength and conflict, while they did have significant impact on whether people actually did what they wanted to do…   personality traits having their effects on emergence of desire, and broad aspects of social situation structure coming into play later in the sequence.”

“The authors speculate that people with good self-control employ it to avoid temptations and problems, rather than relying on it to resist and solve them”

“individuals were less likely to give in to temptations when around other people, except if those people were doing exactly what the individuals were themselves trying to resist.”

  • Hofmann, Wilhelm; Baumeister, Roy F.; Förster, Georg; Vohs, Kathleen D. Everyday Temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 102(6), Jun 2012, 1318-1335.

“People high in trait self-control were more likely than those low in trait self-control to report frequent, systematic avoidance of temptations” PROACTIVELY avoiding temptations

  • Ent, Baumeister, Tice. 2015. Trait self-control and the avoidance of temptation. Personality and Individual Differences

“Models that explicate automatic or impulsive influences on behavior suggest that automatic processes often override more limited and effortful reflective systems”

  • Hofmann, Friese, & Wiers, 2008. Impulsive vs reflective influences on health behavior: a theoretical framework and empirical review. Health Psychology Review, 2, 111-137).

A summary of findings on goal-pursuit behavior emphasizes the importance of an environment that maximizes the potential for goal-related behaviors and minimizes the potential for cueing unhealthy or undesired behaviors, in order to capitalize on automatic processing and reduce the reliance on or utilization of self-regulation resources, which are of course limited and effortful

  • Carels, Young, Koball, Gumble, Darby, Oehlhof, Wott, & Hinman, 2010. Transforming your life: An Environmental Modification Approach to Weight Loss. Journal of Health Psychology. 

“self control poses a significant challenge for most people. Eating better, exercising more, and inhibiting biases are by no means easy. By its very nature, self-control is effortful, with most people at pains to avoid it (Kool, McGuire, Rosen, & Botvnick, 2010).”

  • Inzlicht, Legault, Teper, 2014. Exploring the mechanisms of self-control. Current Directions in psych science: 23(4): 302-207

“According to Kuhl (2000, 2001), a person can deal with the demands of goal pursuit in two ways: One mode is conscious self-control and “is based on the suppression of many subsystems and processes to reduce the risk that any competing action tendency takes over and jeopardises the enactment of a difficult intention” (Kuhl, 2000, p. 115). In this volitional mode, inhibition of unwanted thoughts and desires is key. A dieter, for example, who relies on self-control tries to inhibit all thoughts about forbidden food items as well as the desire to give in to temptation. Unfortunately, inhibiting thoughts, feelings, and desires is often not successful in the long run (Gross & John, 2003; Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987; Wegner & Zanakos, 1994) and may be experienced as depleting (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010). Accordingly, this volitional mode has its shortcomings.”

  • Henneke, Freund, 2016. Age, Action Orientation, and Self-Regulation during the Pursuit of a Dieting Goal. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being

Paper concludes: “it appears that attempts to facilitate long-term weight control by bolstering self-regulatory skills is unlikely to succeed (Lowe, 2003. Self-Regulation of Energy Intake in the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity: Is it Feasible? Obesity; 11). A superior strategy may be to bring under control the availability, portion size, and composition of food at the individual and, eventually, at the population level.”

  • Lowe, M. R. and Levine, A. S. (2005), Eating Motives and the Controversy over Dieting: Eating Less Than Needed versus Less Than Wanted. Obesity Research, 13: 797–806.

“Do treatment and prevention programs that focus on improving self-regulation skills have the potential to sufficiently modify energy intake and energy expenditure to ameliorate or prevent obesity. On the energy intake side, it seems that in the present environment the answer is probably “no.” …    Given the current obesigenic environments in developed countries, the modification of obese or obese-prone individuals’ cognitive and behavioral skills does not seem to be sufficient to produce the type of permanent lifestyle change that will foster the maintenance of weight loss or the avoidance of weight gain. As Blundell and Gillett (26) put it, “attempted self-control of behavior is frequently unreliable because it tends to oppose biological tendencies and environmental pressures.” Although long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss is sometimes achieved (47,106), this occurs in a very small proportion of those who attempt to lose weight. Similarly, educational and motivational programs aimed at the prevention of weight gain have had disappointing results (45). … A promising approach to improving weight control is to focus preventive and treatment efforts on the nature of the foods to which vulnerable individuals are exposed.” (I.E. ON THE ENVIRONMENT/TEMPTATION, NOT THE INDIVIDUAL)

As Skinner (Skinner, B. F. (1953) Science and Human Behavior The Free Press New York.) has argued, “self-control” may best be achieved by arranging the environment in a way that maximizes the likelihood that the sought-after behavior patterns will occur.

  • Lowe, 2003. Self-Regulation of Energy Intake in the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity: Is it Feasible? Obesity; 11

“Environmental modification”

“Resisting powerful drives to consume more calories and expend less energy than necessary requires a great deal of self-regulation effort and skill” (Appelhans BM, French SA, Pagoto SL, Sherwood NE. Managing temptation in obesity treatment: a neurobehavioral model of intervention strategies. Appetite 2016;96:268279.)”

  • Butryn, M. L., Forman, E. M., Lowe, M. R., Gorin, A. A., Zhang, F. and Schaumberg, K. (2017), Efficacy of environmental and acceptance-based enhancements to behavioral weight loss treatment: The ENACT trial. Obesity, 25: 866–872.

Interventions that target the environment seem to put participants in better positions to meet their goals, rather than rely on their self-regulatory efforts and reserves. Work is also burgeoning for acceptance-based treatments versus standard behavioral treatments as a potentially more effective approach to weight-loss programs.

  • Forman, E. M., Butryn, M. L., Manasse, S. M., Crosby, R. D., Goldstein, S. P., Wyckoff, E. P. and Thomas, J. G. (2016), Acceptance-based versus standard behavioral treatment for obesity: Results from the mind your health randomized controlled trial. Obesity, 24: 2050–2056.

“Evidence also indicates that people often simultaneously hold incompatible goals, such as hedonic pleasure and long-term health, and that implicit processes favoring certain goals are strengthened in the presence of specific stimuli. For instance, the sight of a tasty food has been shown to activate hedonic motivations and behaviors (Lowe & Butryn, 2007) and other cues, such as television, are likely to engage implicit processes leading to sedentary behavior. Importantly, one is typically not aware of the processes governing one’s health behavior decisions (e.g., what to eat, whether to go to the gym; Devine, 1989; Marcus et al, 1992 ;  Wadden et al, 2002; T. D. Wilson et al, 2000 ;  World Health Organization, 2010). Implicit processes are likely to favor hedonic pleasure, comfort, and sedentariness over long-term objectives (Friese et al, 2008 ;  Mai et al, 2011).”

  • Forman & Butryn 2015 A new look at the science of weight control: How acceptance and commitment strategies can address the challenge of self-regulation

– “Popular efforts to improve health behavior clearly appreciate the utility of controlling the environment to circumvent temptation: Alcoholics Anonymous advises members to avoid bars and to not keep liquor in the house; Diet programs recommend avoiding fast-food restaurants and not keep junk food at home. This lay appreciation for situation-control (manipulating the context to avoid temptation)” is referred to as lay situationisman individual’s belief in the importance of a behavior’s context; the power of situational influence.
– “The overwhelming evidence from such investigations indicates that people’s power to exert behavior-control is limited and can be easily depleted (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle?Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 247259.[CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Schmeichel & Baumeister, 2004Schmeichel, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2004). Self-regulatory strength. Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 8498). New York, NY: Guilford Press. [Google Scholar]). Thus, in the heat of the moment, the human ability to sustain behavior-control is often inadequate, and the result is a self-regulation failure (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996 Baumeister, R. F., & Heatherton, T. F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: Past, present, and future. Psychological Inquiry, 7(1), 115.[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).”
– “As already described, the typical self-regulation experiment places participants in a situation where the extent of temptation has been very carefully arranged. This type of paradigm creates a well-controlled but somewhat contrived scenario, and it is questionable how well it reflects what occurs in the real world (Tomiyama, Moskovich, Haltom, Ju & Mann, 2009Tomiyama, A .J., Moskovich, A., Haltom, K. B., Ju, T., & Mann, T. (2009). Consumption after a diet violation: Disinhibition or compensation?Psychological Science, 20(10), 12751281.[CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In particular, the experiments do not account for the fact that people often have some degree of situation-control. For instance, the dieter can often choose not to sit in front of the cookie tray, and the alcohol misuser can decide not to enter a bar.”
– Situationism vs Dispositionism.
– “Specifically, it seems likely that people high on situationism will more frequently use situation-control strategies, in order to circumvent temptations.”

  • Roberts, Gibbons, Gerrard, & Klein 2015 Individual Differences in Situation Awareness: Validation of the Situationism Scale. Journal of Social Psychology.

A review of self-regulation processes concludes “The presence of temptation appears to undermine goal attainment”  The current paper demonstrates initial evidence that mild temptations, as opposed to strong ones, are less easily denied, more easily succumbed to; weak temptations yield less active defensive mechanisms than strong temptations.

  • Kroese, F. M., Evers, C. and De Ridder, D. T. D. (2011), Tricky treats: Paradoxical effects of temptation strength on self-regulation processes. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 41: 281–288.

Temptation prevention vs resistance…

Desire is more influential on behavior when individuals are depleted…

“meta-analyses reveal that enhancing the strength of the intention to reach a given goal does improve the rate of goal attainment only to a rather small degree (Sheeran, P. (2002). Intention-behavior relations: A conceptual and empirical review. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (Vol. 12, pp. 1–30). ; Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 249–268.).”

  • Gollwitzer, P.M. Weakness of the will: Is a quick fix possible? Motivation and Emottion (2014) 38: 305.


Participants who made the most progress towards their dietary goals were the ones who encountered the fewest temptations

  • Milyavskaya, M., Inzlicht, M., Hope, N., & Koestner, R. (2015). Saying ‘no’ to temptation: Want-to motivation improves self-regulation by reducing temptation rather than by increasing self-control. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 109(4), 677-693.

Recent research (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2012 –> Everyday temptations ;  Finkenauer et al., 2012) showing that people with high trait self-control are more successful at self-regulation because they experience fewer temptations, but not because they are better at resisting them.

APS Report on Willpower identifies avoiding temptation as the primary strategy for managing self-control, citing the tactics taken by people in various studies to implement the “out of sight, out of mind” technique.

More specific, blatant temptations are more powerful, likely to be succumbed to, than vague or abstract temptations

  • Knowledge of the self-control benefits of high-level versus low-level construal. MacGregor, Karen E.; Carnevale, Jessica J.; Dusthimer, Nicole E.; Fujita, Kentaro. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 112(4), Apr 2017, 607-620.

– In addiction literature, “we will argue that willpower or executive capacities play less of a role in successful self-control than the pursuit of strategies (i.e. avoiding temptation)” They argue that it’s more effective to exercise control over one’s environment than controlling impulses or resisting temptation.
– differences in willpower do not correlate positively with differences in trait self-control (TSC), a measure of the difference between individuals in their capacity to exercise self-control, and TSC is predictive of success in a range of domains requiring self-regulation (de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, & Baumeister, 2012; Muraven, Pogarsky, & Shmueli, 2006; Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). Individuals high in TSC are significantly more vulnerable to the effects of ego depletion than those who are lower in TSC, and, conversely, individuals more than one standard deviation below the mean in TSC show virtually no effect of depletion (Imhoff, Schmidt, & Gerstenberg, 2014).
– goals may be better achieved not by effortful resistance of temptation, but by deploying strategies to ensure either that temptations are not encountered
– interviews with people in recovery from addiction show that people who seem not to be short on willpower; rather, success and goal attainment is dependent on developing strategies to preserve willpower by controlling the environment, specifically to be devoid of temptations

  • Snoek, Levy, Kennett, 2016. Strong-willed but not successful: The importance of strategies in recovery from addiction. Addictive Behaviors Reports. vol 4. 

Psychiatrists are trending towards relinquishing the idea of willpower altogether. Which could be helpful for the future since notions of willpower are easily stigmatized- social problems could be framed as issues of personal discipline. “Willpower based moral accusations are among the easiest to sling”

The more salient a temptation, the more likely we are to succumb: “the more strongly a temptation automatically draws people’s attention, the more likely they are to fail at self-control”
“What remains largely unaddressed, however, are the processes that people engage in to avoid salient temptations in the first place…Research has repeatedly shown that when people are able to anticipate potential self-control failures, they prospectively restrict the future availability of and opportunity to indulge in temptations”
The author considers the defining feature of successful impulse inhibition to be a complete avoidance of temptation.

  • Fujita, 2011. On Conceptualizing Self-Control as More than the Effortful Inhibition of Impulses. 

Ego depletion may be just an example of how belief drives behavior- those who believe in willpower as a limited resource are more likely to demonstrate signs of cognitive fatigue. The consistency and repliciability of ego-depletion has failed to hold up in meta-analyses, boosted by publication bias against de-confirming results.

Health Psychologist Traci Mann includes over 20 studies in her book that demonstrate no relationship between an individual’s self-control score and the amount of food they eat in a given study. https://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Eating-Lab-Science-Willpower/dp/0062329235?tag=sciofus-20

Women ate twice as much candy when they were displayed in clear containers versus opaque

  • Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & Lee, Y. -. (2006). The office candy dish: Proximity’s influence on estimated and actual consumption. International Journal Of Obesity, 30(5), 871-875.

High school and college students were more likely to progress towards academic and lifestyle goals if they were directed to use strategies that alter the environment, including removing or avoiding temptations (situation modification condition), than those who were directed to use cognitive strategies, like employing willpower or diverting attention (response modulation strategy). situation selection/modification is a very useful strategy for not succumbing to temptations – those are stages in the Process Model of Self Control, which expands the concept of self-control beyond the idea of an individual’s impulse resistance or willpower, the idea of a finite but renewable resource that is ego-depleting, to the idea that there is a variety of strategies, spanning both the situational and the intrapsychic levels. And the model claims that the situational strategies have superior efficacy– which has support from recent studies including the Everyday Temptations study and the Ent Baumeister Tice 2015 studies that demonstrate how successfully self controlled/self-disciplined individuals tend to use situation-selection/modification type strategies. The authors review a vast host of literature in different areas that provide preliminary support for the usefulness and efficacy of situation-based strategies over intrapsychic ones, including the realms of substance use, health behaviors (eating and exercise), academic work, and retirement savings.

  • Duckworth, A. L., White, R. E., Matteucci, A. J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J. J. (2016). A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.
  • Duckworth, Szabo Gendler, Gross. 2016. Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perpsectives on Psych Science



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